Please tell us about yourself and your theater background.
I’m Cristen Stephansky and I’m playing Gertrude, known as “Gert” for short, in Lost in Yonkers. I’ve performed onstage for many years in various capacities as an actor and/or singer. After graduating from the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in 2012, I’ve worked as a professional actor in theater and film primarily in the DC area. Also, I write short plays for fun.
What enticed you to audition for Lost in Yonkers?
There were several reasons I decided to audition for Lost in Yonkers. I often perform in a lot of new works (which I love), but I thought it would be fun to act in an established, realism play. It gives a solid framework within which you can bring the story to life, which is slightly different than performing in a play that is still in the process of being created. Neil Simon is known for putting humor into his work, and his characters, especially in this play, are rich because he draws on “real” life.
How would you describe Lost in Yonkers and why is it still relevant to today’s audiences?
On the surface, I would say Lost in Yonkers about two boys (who recently lost their mother) being sent to temporarily live with their grandmother and aunt during World War II. It shows how they cope as they interact with everyone in their somewhat dysfunctional family. However, the story really shows how pain and trauma gets created, and ultimately healed, over various generations of a family. The characters all are forced to face their individual fears in some way. They also have to find ways to communicate their needs to each other.
No matter what is happening around us in the world, our relationships with our family members are the often the strongest ones that affect us. Most people can relate to having families that are less than perfect. Neil Simon’s writing allows us to witness the humor in the dysfunction, allows us to understand what created it, and finally gives us hope that it doesn’t have to continue forever. This play helps us realize how our fear of pain only perpetuates it within us and can directly affect our loved ones, but also inspires us to face it in our own lives. And, of course, it shows how love wins out.
Gert has a profound physical disability. How have you been able to create believability, with comedy, while respecting her medical issue?
Well, it is more the writer who added any “comedy” that the audience may find in the situation. For Gert, this is an actual affliction that came from being traumatized as a child by her mother. Her body creates this issue to try to “protect” her from harm in a situation in which she feels threatened (i.e. being home and around her mother). Again, as an audience member, I think the humor comes from the timing (of when the disability “appears”) and because it is uncomfortable or unusual to hear someone talk with a vocal affliction. When you watch a show, you feel “safe” to laugh about it or how it sounds. The interesting part as a performer is realizing how much of a challenge it is for this character to talk in this environment. It makes everything she says more important because she must work harder to be understood. She wouldn’t try to talk unless it was absolutely necessary, but she has to try – even if she fails.
Lost in Yonkers plays through November 5, 2017 at Peace Mountain Theatre Company performing at Congregation Har Shalom, 11510 Falls Road in Potomac, MD. For tickets, call (301) 987-2478 or purchase them online.